Patriarch Bechara Rai and the “Arab Spring”. Tensions with Paris and Washington
by Fady Noun
After France, rumors of discontent within U.S. government over patriarch Béchara Raï’s speech. Trip to the U.S. capital, where the patriarch is scheduled to meet President Obama, postponed. The delicate situation of the Lebanese Christians, in the grip between Sunnis and Shiites. The quest for peace and coexsistence.
Beirut (AsiaNews) – It all started in Paris in early September. Invited by France, to which the newly elected Maronite patriarchs grant – according to an ancient tradition – their first official visit, the patriarch Béchara Raï gave a certainly balanced, but nonetheless, out of the ordinary speech. On his return to Lebanon, a statement by the Quai d’Orsay – the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs – announced that “France is surprised and disappointed” by the intentions expressed by the patriarch, during the press conference held in the context of the visit.
A few days ago the Maronite Patriarchal seat announced that patriarch Raï’s visit to Washington, in the context of a pastoral visit this October to the United States, where there is a thriving Maronite community, was canceled. And in the context of this visit to U.S. capital, of the possibility of organizing a meeting with President Obama was under consideration. A few days earlier, the U.S. ambassador in Lebanon Maura Connelly had visited Bkerke. Logical conclusion: after France, the U.S. is also unhappy about the positions taken by the Maronite Patriarch about the Hezbollah movement and the Arab Spring.
But what, specifically, are these positions? Regarding the Arab Spring, the patriarch has not taken a public position, but greatly mitigated France’s staunch claim that Syrian President Assad “is over.” The head of the Maronite Church, informed about what is happening in Syria to by Maronite priests and bishops living in the country, warned the French President Sarkozy that in no way should the risk of “confessional drift” in the Sunni Muslim country be underestimated, where the Sunni community represents about 80% of the population.
By saying as much, the patriarch Raï seemed to favour President Assad’s holding on to power, whose dictatorial regime is – in principle – secular, against the possible rise of a Sunni theocracy. But this is not at all what the Patriarch Raï said. The latter has sought to explain that he only “described a situation”, but in no way intended to “take sides” with the Syrian regime. The patriarch also fears a military drift in the Syrian revolt, which would result in a civil war between the Sunni majority and the Alawite minority, of which is part President Bashar al-Assad. A civil war, the Patriarch said, would ultimately – and inevitably – lead to a division of Syria, a prelude to a “fragmentation” of the Arab world along ethno-religious lines. The Maronite Patriarch supports a “civil” regime, in which religion is separated from the State and trusts in the virtues of pluralism.
As for Hezbollah, of which in public statements the patriarch appeared to justify the possession of weapons, the Maronite Patriarchate insists that the weapons will remain legitimate as long as the West – which some identify with the “international community” – fail to remove the pretexts with which Hezbollah justifies its maintenance of arms: a helpless Lebanese army, without air cover, without anti-tank rockets, and Israel’s belligerent policy, characterized by the continuous occupation of strips of land that belong to Lebanon.
Patriarch Raï confirmed these beliefs – which some believe are also supported, albeit discreetly, by the Vatican – two days ago during a series of extended meetings between religious leaders held, at the express request of the Maronite Patriarchate, at the headquarters of Dar el-Fatwa, the Council of the Sunni community. A meeting also wanted, in part, to correct the impression that the Maronite Patriarchate is playing the “Shiite” card against the Sunni community, as part of an adventurous “alliance of minorities”. Instead the patriarch’s initiative proves his will to consolidate the “national pact” between the Lebanese and their desire to live together.
However, this effort faces two crucial points, carefully avoided during the session: Hezbollah arms, the function of which are not as altruistic as the pro-Iranian party’ would like make believe. These weapons, in fact, are crucial in the regional geopolitical equation, and place Lebanon within the Syrian-Iranian axis, against the axis formed by the West. And the second, decisive question: the International Tribunal to judge the murder of Rafik Hariri in 2005. From this point of view, the Sunnis and Shiite conflict is clear, since the explicitly accuses militants of Hezbollah, as perpetrators of the massacre. Hezbollah conducted a broad campaign to discredit the Tsl, to push the Lebanese government to withdraw its share of funding. For the opposition, this campaign is to double check that Hezbollah has betrayed Hariri and cleared, in collusion with the Syrian regime.
Currently it is unclear how the Maronite Church will address these two major dilemmas, which represent the main obstacle to real peace within civil society, which would protect Lebanon and the Lebanese Christians from any upset. We know only that the government of Nagib Mikati has imposed this requirement at the top of his priorities, but without any guarantee of success.
In addition, the volatility of the situation in Syria is such that, once again, questions arise spontaneously. What will the consequences for the Christians of that country be, of a militarization of the revolt that no one can control? And what are the consequences, in this case, of the alleged support that the churches have given to the incumbent regime, at the very moment when the West calls on Arab countries, including Lebanon, to strongly disassociate themselves from this regime?